The Film-Maker Who Picks Locations Carefully (with audio)

  • September 17, 2019

Steffi Wurster is a stage designer based Berlin. Besides her work on stage, she develops interdisciplinary projects and documentary films, in which she questions the constructedness of perception and deals with the visualization of spatial processes. What role does territory play in her films?

I had a discussion with Steffi Wurster. She is a stage designer and film-maker based in Berlin. I admire how Steffi thinks about the spaces that she chooses for her films. Spaces play an important role in her work and one of these special spaces is in the Baltics. That is where we met.

Steffi, could you please say a few words on what films were you working on recently and where.

The first documentary I did was a long term documentary in Sochi Russia. And I didn’t plan to make this documentary, I just came upon the topic you can say because I looked there in 2007 or 2008 at the beginning of this transformation for the Olympic games. And I was shortly arrested and I was quite shocked by people who lived on the very small bay, that should be transformed very roughly. It became the Olympic coastal cluster. And it was personal engagement with these people who should be relocated during the next years, and I decided to document this process of relocation and transformation of a certain area.

And after that, I first didn’t know at all what I want to do else. What I want to document next and I think during the Ukraine crisis has just started, I read about the strange place of Transnistria in the Republic of Moldova. A trilateral mission, a military mission and that was strange enough for me, so my interest was caught and I decided to document this military post with solders from different conflicting parties, sitting under one roof. And as you know my third project is placed now in Lithuania. It’s Rukla that has become the starting point of what I will hopefully do.

Understood. Can you explain a little bit for journalists or people not really related to theater you know, because we know that you are stage designer or scenographer? And you also do films. And it can seem, it seem very interesting actually that you maybe use this knowledge from theater while producing films and just in general you know do you think about it?

Yeah. There is a connection between my love for spaces. So, when I document something or have a camera I am very much oriented towards space. Maybe it is not so fair towards my protagonists sometimes. I very much like to have the whole space, for example. To stage it somehow, so that I see people moving around in spaces. And at least in my last documentary, it was very obvious that, it is difficult to explain. The situation was very artificial in this post, so I decided to really show this. To show it as if the post is something like a theater, let’s say ok. It’s exaggerated now. But the situation was artificial, I had the static camera, the space was quite static, that was one connection I thought when I watched my material. The connection to what I am doing on stage, with work on stage.

And I could add that in both mediums in theater and in film you have of course dramaturgy and storytelling. And in the other way around in my theater work, I often talk with directors I work with there in terms of film. So, how do the transformations between one scene and the other work? Is it like filmic, hard-cut, is it more a blend?

Do you think its also the reason why you come to a location before finishing the movie? Because you know, I know of some documentary makers who focus themselves on people, on what they have to say and they don’t really care about spaces. They just come ask to find any related or unrelated location and they just film in two hours. And you come for, I don’t know at least to Lithuania you came here already three or four times. 

No, two times. Just two times.

Ok, how many times you were in Sochi for example?

Fourteen times.

Fourteen, wow!

I am crazy. I was just so in love with this region and the bay and the people. So, I came back again and again and it was also a question of I don’t know money. At first, you don’t have the money, but you have to learn a lot. Then you come when you have the money. Then you come back because you want to come back.

OK, and what about Transnistria? How many times there?

There it was, I think just 7 times. I want to really feel the place. I have to be there again and again and to understand the place and what’s happening. Otherwise, I can’t understand the situation and I don’t know what I want to tell and how I want to tell it. It is the way I work. 

Yeah, so, another point I am interested in is people who help you in the field. Can you tell briefly if you had someone, like a local producer? People who were not part of your team from Germany, but you met there for instance in Sochi or in Transnistria.

In Sochi, I started as I mentioned as a complete non-professional woman. And I met or got in contact with somebody, with a German guy who worked in a business company there. And he translated for me and drove me around. He wasn’t a professional either. We just met and I gave him very little money and it was fine for everybody. And when I received money I took a local producer from Germany with me.

In Transnistria, I got into contact with somebody living in Tiraspol. And that makes, of course, a very great difference with meeting somebody in Kishiniov, from the Moldovan side. So many people said at first oh maybe it’s not so good to have just someone from there. But for me in the end, I am very happy with it. Because with Moldovan guys, I could come along very easily. I could use my Germany, my English, my Russian knowledge and they trusted me at one of course. But to get into contact with the Transnistrian side was much more difficult. So to have a local producer lets say, this way the Transnistrian side opened the doors for me there. He had a very good connection to KGB Tiraspol and he said I would have received the allowance to film the post without him. And I think he was right. So I decided. He could speak German and it was very funny to work with him and it was great actually. So, I decided to go with him for the whole project.

OK, and how did you make sure that he doesn’t mislead you somehow? Like, have you doublechecked his biography. Or maybe you know friends you had in common or something?

I think, this German journalist I mentioned in the beginning, he recommended him to me. I knew this journalist, so I knew he wouldn’t recommend him to me if he is not trustworthy. And he proofed that he was very, I don’t know, his father was policeman, probably part of KGB himself.

So, his profession was a journalist, right?

No, he is reisefuhrer, travel guide. Maybe. I mean you are doing several things. And I think, he is not like you a journalist, but he is doing several things. He has this traveling tourist business somehow. He is sometimes doing something for radio, but not really a journalistic way.

O, and did you have any bad or I don’t know, uncomfortable experiences with anyone with any of the fixers?

Sometimes, I thought, with all mentioned guys that they could be a bit more engaged with the topic or with the content of what we are doing or producing. But that’s very high-level expectation, I know. And that is why I like, for example, very much to work with you, because you are thinking about things and what does it mean and backgrounds and whatever, looking to things from different sides. With the other guys it was from the organization or contact side very very good, but a bit more pragmatic approach.

The last thing, maybe today. My idea is, I am tracking how the role of fixers is changing through time. And I am interested in the film-maker’s perspective as well. A simple question would be: do you think fixers produce something? This would mean, you know that, well when you mentioned that they don’t care too much about the content, they may produce something without their knowledge. For instance, they have a bias or some kind of believes that they can share with you and take you together into some meaning you know without even knowing that. For instance, when a fixer knows and cares about the content then he can think of producing something intentionally and well its a bit philosophical question but what do you think they produce.

Yeah, I would agree absolutely to you in the sense that fixer is part of production or is somehow influencing the attitude of the film-maker. And so is influencing what is the image in the end, maybe, or the idea of the whole. So its responsibility of the film-maker to decide whether he trusts this guy or not. Yeah, I mean, I could ask you. Does a fixer have an interest in influencing, or do you as a fixer have an interest in influencing the production of the film-maker of a journalist you meet? Well, maybe you can answer late.

Yeah, briefly, you know I am not sure if it’s about the interest. But its for sure about the choice. Because I think as a fixer you most of the time you are a bit fixed, you know in the country. And you have to think about it. Because you will meet those people again. And well you are in between, so its about the choice. And I think that it was being very conscious is important to a fixer, because you have to make this choice consciously. Well, so it is a difficult question, you know it’s a choice. What you can do is you can try to make this choice consciously as much as you can, and still there is a risk.

Yeah, and I mean and everything is a question of communication. It’s maybe even a good thing if fixer and film-maker discuss or speak about this from the very beginning and so it is possible to intervene and say that mush be somebody else or whatever.

Those movies you made would they be possible without fixers, without local people that you met?

No, absolutely not, because, I think. I can just speak for me. I didn’t know the regions I wasn’t before and I even didn’t speak Russian when I started the project in Sochi and of course, you can’t learn a language so quickly. So, for me, it was absolutely necessary to have a sort of opener for the whole life or situation in these countries.

I hope your fixers will hear this. thank you so much for this conversation, it was nice talking to you and good luck with your work in Lithuania.

Interviewed by Gil Skorwid